When Belleville, Illinois, alt-country frontrunners Uncle Tupelo split in 1994, two of the genre’s signature bands rose from the wreckage. Local fixture Wilco ascended to greater commercial success with its progressive pop sound, but Jay Farrar’s Son Volt built a lasting legacy by hewing closer to the band’s early roots.
The literate folk of Bob Dylan echoes through Son Volt’s country ballads, including the troubled “Cairo and Southern,” while the unfettered snarl of Neil Young’s Crazy Horse runs through songs like “Sinking Down” from recent album “Notes of Blue” and the accusatory tone of signature song “Drown” from 1995 debut “Trace.” The ghosts of Jack Kerouac and Hank Williams inform tales of untethered but resilient people enduring hard times in songs like “Back Against the Wall.”
The band’s latest material finds Farrar continuing his quest for spiritual freedom through roots and folk music. “For years I’ve been drawn to the passion, common struggle and possibility for redemption that’s always been a part of the blues,” he says in a press release. “Everyone has to pay the rent and get along with their significant others, so many of the themes are universal. For me, the blues fills that void that’s there for religion, really. That’s the place I turn to be lifted up.”
“Promise the World” describes hell to pay on the road to hard-won peace, but suggests that the payoff is sweet, worthwhile, and perhaps even inevitable. “Light after darkness, that is the way,” sings Farrar. Other songs follow the determined motto “Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”
That struggle and the allure of elusive bliss through song have been evident since Son Volt’s debut. “Switching over to AM, searching for a truer sound,” sang Farrar on “Trace” standout “Windfall.” Weeping pedal steel guitar and lively fiddle marked Son Volt’s connection to classic country music from the ‘60s and ‘70s, reinforced by the authentic hard-luck shuffle “Tear Stained Eye.” And then there was the adrenalized catharsis of “Route.” The album embodied the burgeoning Americana and No Depression experience during the mid-’90s, and still serves as the indelible blueprint.
It’s unfortunate that the band remains binned as an alternative to country, because if mainstream country had evolved into the pattern set by Son Volt, fans would be experiencing the genre’s golden age right now. Forget that slick stuff on the charts. Head to Space and see what real roots music has to offer.
Jeff Elbel is a local freelance writer.